V. M. Whitworth’s The Bone Thief (Ebury, 2012), and it’s sequel The Traitor’s Pit (Ebury, 2013) are exemplary historical novels. The author is known, by another name, as a medieval historian. I read the first book merely out of curiosity, because I knew her scholarly work. But, after a few pages, I was hooked. The setting is England Before England Was, the reigns of Æthelred, King of Mercia and Edward of Wessex, who was soon to unify the two kingdoms and make considerable inroads on the Danelaw. The future England has long been split between Pagan and Christian kings, but the Norse Gods are fading as the Scandinavian conquerors are adopting Christianity (with varying degrees of sincerity), and the two cultures are merging. The action of the first book is inspired by an incident recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as occurring in the year 909. The fictional hero is Wulfgar, a young cleric in the service of historical Æthelflæd, who is one of the more interesting women known from the period. For years, Æthelred has been too ill to rule, and The Lady of the Mercians rules in his stead. In The Bone Thief, she sends Wulfgar on a secret mission into the Viking-controlled Five Burroughs, to obtain the bones of St. Oswald, which she hopes will rally people to the Mercian cause. The bones have been lost, but are buried anonymously behind Bardney Abbey (which in 2014 is nothing more than a few stony lumps in a field northwest of the village of Bardney — see image below). Wulfgar is a timid soul, and is soon overwhelmed by the conspiracies, treacheries, and brutality of royal power politics. He has been chosen for the task primarily because he speaks some Danish. No adventure-seeker, he has a naïve belief in most of the things he was taught, which others around him regard as useful fictions or disposable formalities. In the sequel, he is assigned yet another mission, while at the same time trying to prove the innocence of his elder brother, who has been charged with participating in an attempt on the life of Edward. This leads into even more convoluted politics, violence, and tragedy. In both books, Wulfgar is constantly menaced by his nemesis, a bullying and brutal half-brother, and constantly aided by a fierce and roguish Dano-English female adventurer.
Now, those are the bare bones of the books, but it’s the execution that matters. The historical novelist is confronted with a number of very difficult choices, even before starting a novel. The first is: how much history and how much fiction? It is tempting to simply stuff the book with every historical detail one can find, which makes for a fat book, demanding a patient reader. You might call this the McCullough Effect. Or you can simply take a quick glance at the encyclopedia, then assemble a plot that could fit into any era, relying on the clichés and the swordplay to keep the reader from noticing that you actually know nothing about the period. Striking a satisfactory balance between the two is hardest of all. A little while ago, I read a little volume of historical short stories by the now forgotten Canadian writer Thomas H. Raddall. Each story is a little gem, which brings 18th and 19th century Nova Scotia to life with a few, carefully chosen historical details, slipped in so deftly that you scarcely notice them as you are caught up in the characters and their actions. The well-timed appearance of a phrase, an object, a custom, or an attitude, integral to drama, reveals a sophisticated analysis of the history. Robert Graves also had this knack, and while his interpretations of history were sometimes eccentric and out of the mainstream, nobody can fault him for mastery of his sources. I recommend his Count Belisarius, for anyone who wants to lose themselves in a historical novel that is true art. Whitworth’s books display this same skill. Her early Tenth Century is entirely believable, and vividly drawn, but there are no lectures or stagnant passages interrupting the rapid movement of the story and her remarkably precise, compact prose.
Another question facing the historical novelist is how to represent past languages. We are all familiar with the silly 1950’s Roman Empire movies where the Roman Senators speak in Public School British English, the centurions speak Midwestern American, and the slaves speak Cockney. In these two novels, there are a multitude of languages and dialects represented. Anglo-Saxon is represented by modern English, without stilted, pseudo-medieval archaisms, but flavoured with a few well-chosen words drawn from modern English dialects to convey the impression of dialects in Anglo-Saxon, as, for example, the Anglo-Saxon of Mercia, Wessex, the Five Burroughs and Northumbria, and the peculiar Anglo-Saxon which would have been spoken as a second language by the Norse settlers. Whitworth employs very fine judgement in this process. The results never jar the reader, never break the spell of looking through a magic mirror into the past.
Finally, there is the question of psychological and moral anachronism. I quickly grow impatient of historical novels with an ideological agenda, or those which worship power and military might. The cult of the king-fuhrer-superman is strong among historical novelists. Brutal, murderous gangsters like Julius Caesar and Alexander of Macedon have been turned into beatified fantasy heros by many a writer who would not be able to get away with it if it was Kim Il-Sung or Reinhard Heydrich they were writing about. In some novels, the hero, in order to be acceptable to a modern audience, is represented as having values that they simply could not have had in the period. Senators in ancient Rome spout the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. The modern desire to have strong female characters fills novels with an improbable number of woman warriors and powerful queens, and a population that seems to react to them as if they were the norm. It happens that Æthelflæd was an able politician and led armies into battle, but Whitworth’s novels put this in a believable, historically plausible context. Nor does she soft-peddle or ignore the casual brutality, violence, and class-ranking of the day. She is very good at picturing a society where loyalties are largely personal, but can mutate into collective loyalties. Her hero, Wulfgar, is drawn sympathetically, but displays many attitudes that we would frown on today, such as an abject devotion to an unattainable woman. His chronic puppy love for every beautiful woman he meets, simmering within the stew-pot of his religious duties, is hard for a modern reader to empathize with, and it’s a special merit of the books that they convey it effectively. Again, believability is the author’s strong suit. Her technique is to embroil her character in so much danger and confusion that we cannot help but root for him, even if he is a bit of a thicky, sometimes.
 At the Tide’s Turn and Other Stories, by Thomas H. Raddall.
24562. (V. M. Whitworth) The Bone Thief
24575. (V. M. Whitworth) The Traitor’s Pit
[Both were published by Ebury, an imprint of Penguin/Random House, and are easily available through Amazon.]